Eli’s memoirs recall battles in Algeria

Ted Morgan ’54 was working at his first job out of school as a reporter for the Worcester Telegram in Massachusetts when he received an unexpected notice from the French army. Still a French citizen, even though he was living and working in the United States, Morgan had been drafted. He was told to report to the French barracks immediately.

“I thought they’d forgotten all about me,” Morgan said. “I was in shock.”

Fifty years later, Morgan is reliving his experience in his new memoir “My Battle of Algiers,” which details the rise of urban terrorism by the Front de Liberation National in Algeria and the systematic use of torture by the French army during the Algerian war.

When Morgan was drafted, the French army was in the midst of fighting in Algeria against nationalist insurgents in a war that would last from 1954 until Algeria became independent in 1962. As an officer in the French army, Morgan spent his first few months in Algeria engaged in combat in the countryside. But because of his background and education, he found a job in Algiers writing for the French army’s newspaper, arriving in the city just in time for the Battle of Algiers.

Although Morgan vividly relives Algiers in his memoirs, he did not share details about his experience there for decades. Tom Wallace ’55, Morgan’s friend and agent, said he first began to hear the whole story of his ordeals just two years ago, even though the two men had shared a house on Fire Island in New York soon after Morgan returned stateside from Algeria. Morgan asked Wallace to be his agent and handed over a roughly 15-20 page proposal outline of the memoir. After so many years of not hearing about his college friend’s time in Algeria, Wallace said the manuscript caught him by surprise.

“It was all new to me,” Wallace said. “He kept it to himself.”

Before Morgan met Wallace at Yale in the early 1950s, he was a student at the Sorbonne in Paris. But, having grown up in the United States, becoming accustomed to U.S. education styles, Morgan said he was not happy at the Paris school. It was crowded, he said, with lecture classes of 200-300 students, and nearly impossible to ever speak with a professor. Instead of attending lectures, students were encouraged to get copies of them.

But when Morgan transferred to Yale during his junior year, he said he found an entirely different institution. Morgan got to know his professors and said he enjoyed being able to choose from many different extracurricular activities.

“Yale was a wonderful department store,” Morgan said. “You were busy all the time if you wanted to be — doing things you liked to do, not because you were compelled to.”

And Morgan’s enhanced intellectual experience at Yale was not limited to his studies. When he wanted to impress a girl from Vassar College who loved the poetry of Ezra Pound, one of Morgan’s American Studies professors who was well connected with writers helped Morgan bring his love interest to spend the day in New York with Pound at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Morgan ended up having a correspondence with Pound, and still has 12 letters from him.

“She was very impressed,” Morgan said.

As a Yale student, Morgan was involved in the Apollo Glee Club, the Dramatic Society in Berkeley College, the Elizabethan Club, the Jared Eliot Society, which aided the library, and the now-defunct magazine Ad Veritas. He was also a member of Manuscript, a senior society that had just been founded and met in a local tobacco store at the time.

Morgan was also involved in a slightly more dangerous activity. Wallace said he remembers his friend as being an elegant and sophisticated student, but also as being a bit of a daredevil. He used to go night-climbing, a sport picked up from Oxford or Cambridge students. The students involved would climb buildings, such as the many towers on the Yale campus, at night without ropes or supports. Eventually, they progressed to other, more difficult buildings, like St. John the Divine in New York.

After graduating from Yale, Morgan attended journalism school at Columbia University. Upon completion, he was hired by Frank Murphy, the former editor of the Worcester Telegram, and began working there within a week. He said he loved the excitement of watching the papers come up off of the press. But Morgan could not enjoy it for long — he soon found out he had been drafted.

Upon telling his boss he had been drafted, Morgan said he remembers Murphy’s reply: “I’ve lost a lot of men for a lot of reasons, but this is the first time I’ve lost a man to the French army.”

Hendon Chubb ’54, Morgan’s best man at his wedding, spent two weeks in the south of France with Morgan just before he departed for Algeria. He said Morgan did not want to fight, but he knew that he had to go.

Morgan said he thought being bilingual and having graduated from Yale might help him land a job as a translator instead of fighting, but he was turned down. He did make some friends at the American consulate, but even that eventually got him into trouble when he was suspected of being an American agent.

Overall, Morgan said he found there was little he learned at Yale that could have helped him in Algeria.

“It was a completely different world,” he said.

After an “awful experience” fighting in the country and working in Algiers during the war, he said he was all the more motivated to return to the United States. After his army service ended, he returned home and got a job with the Associated Press in New York.

Since coming back from Algiers, Morgan has written 18 books and has won the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting for his account of the death of Leonard Warren on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. He changed his name from de Gramont, the name he went by during his years at Yale, to the anagram Ted Morgan.

“My Battle of Algiers” has seen some acclaim from critics. A review from Publisher’s Weekly praised the memoir for its biting realism and its importance to modern history, saying “anyone interested in the origins of modern terrorist tactics will benefit from his recollections.”

But other sources criticize the connection Morgan makes in the introduction between Algiers and Iraq. A review that ran in the Washington Post in March calls this connection a “brief, tediously obvious and unnecessary attempt to connect the dots between the battle of Algiers and the current American conflagration in Iraq.”

Chubb said that while Morgan did not detail his experience in Algiers with him after he returned, he could see it had affected Morgan profoundly.

“It was clearly something that shook him and jarred him enormously,” he said.

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